Americans Face Guantanamo-Like Torture Everyday in a Super-Max Prison Near You

By Lance Tapley, Boston Review
Posted on January 18, 2011, Printed on January 26, 2011

Editor’s Note: Courageous WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning is reportedly suffering some of the same horrible experiences detailed in the article below, including 23 hours a day of solitary confinement, which has been labeled torture by numerous prison and psychological experts.

“They beat the shit out of you,” Mike James said, hunched near the smeared plexiglass separating us. He was talking about the cell “extractions” he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit guards at the Maine State Prison.

“They push you, knee you, poke you,” he said, his voice faint but ardent through the speaker. “They slam your head against the wall and drop you on the floor while you’re cuffed.” He lifted his manacled hands to a scar on his chin. “They split it wide open. They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ when you’re not even moving.”

When you meet Mike James you notice first his deep-set eyes and the many scars on his shaved head, including a deep, horizontal gash. He got that by scraping his head on the cell door slot, which guards use to pass in food trays.

“They were messing with me,” he explained, referring to the guards who taunted him. “I couldn’t stand it no more.” He added, “I’ve knocked myself out by running full force into the wall.”

James, who is in his twenties, has been beaten all his life, first by family members: “I was punched, kicked, slapped, bitten, thrown against the wall.” He began seeing mental-health workers at four and taking psychiatric medication at seven. He said he was bipolar and had many other disorders. When a doctor took him off his meds at age eighteen, he got into “selling drugs, robbing people, fighting, burglaries.” He received a twelve-year sentence for robbery. Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves,” he said. It included periods alone in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James told me was confirmed by other inmates and prison employees.

James’s story illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at Guantánamo. To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons. The Obama administration— somewhat unsteadily—plans to shut down the Guantánamo detention center and ship its inmates to one or more supermaxes in the United States, as though this would mark a substantive change. In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity. Prisoners may be regularly beaten in cell extractions, and they receive meager health services. The isolation frequently leads to insane behavior including self-injury and suicide attempts.

In 2004, state-run supermaxes in 44 states held about 25,000 people, according to Daniel Mears, a Florida State University criminologist who has done the most careful count. Mears told me his number was conservative. In addition the federal system has a big supermax in Colorado, ADX Florence, and a total of about 11,000 inmates in solitary in all its lockups, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Some researchers peg the state and federal supermax total as high as a hundred thousand; their studies sometimes include more broadly defined “control units”—for example, those in which men spend all day in a cell with another prisoner. (Nationally, 91 percent of prison and jail inmates are men, so overwhelmingly men fill the supermaxes. Women also are kept in supermax conditions, but apparently no one has estimated how many.) Then there are the county and city jails, the most sizable of which have large solitary-confinement sections. Although the roughness in what prisoners call “the hole” varies from prison to prison and jail to jail, isolation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.

James experienced frequent cell extractions—on one occasion, five of them in a single day. In this procedure, five hollering guards wearing helmets and body armor charge into the cell. The point man smashes a big shield into the prisoner. The others spray mace into his face, push him onto the bed, and twist his arms behind his back to handcuff him, connecting the cuffs by a chain to leg irons. As they continue to mace him, the guards carry him screaming to an observation room, where they bind him to a special chair. He remains there for hours.

A scene such as this might have taken place at supposedly aberrant Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as described by prisoners and guards and vividly revealed in a leaked video (the Maine prison records these events to ensure that inmates are not mistreated), an extraction is the supermax’s normal, zero-tolerance reaction to prisoner disobedience, which may be as minor as protesting bad food by covering the cell door’s tiny window with a piece of paper. Such extractions occur all the time, not just in Maine but throughout the country. The principle applied is total control of a prisoner’s actions. Even if the inmate has no history of violence, when he leaves the cell he’s in handcuffs and ankle shackles, with a guard on either side.

But he doesn’t often leave the cell. In Maine’s supermax, which is typical, an inmate spends 23 hours a day alone in a 6.5-by-14-foot space. When the weather is good, he’ll spend an hour a day, five days a week, usually alone, in a small dog run outdoors. Radios and TVs are forbidden. Cell lights are on night and day. When the cold food is shoved through the door slot, prisoners fear it is contaminated by the feces, urine, and blood splattered on the cell door and corridor surfaces by the many mentally ill or enraged inmates. The prisoner is not allowed a toothbrush but is provided a plastic nub to use on a fingertip. Mental-health care usually amounts to a five-minute, through-the-steel-door conversation with a social worker once or twice a week. The prisoner gets a shower a few times a week, a brief telephone call every week or two, and occasional “no-contact” access to a visitor. Variations in these conditions exist: for example, in some states TVs or radios are allowed.

When supermaxes were built across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, they were theoretically for “the worst of the worst,” the most violent prisoners. But an inmate may be put in one for possession of contraband such as marijuana, if accused by another inmate of being a gang member, for hesitating to follow a guard’s order, and even for protection from other inmates. Several prisoners are in the Maine supermax because they got themselves tattooed. By many accounts mental illness is the most common denominator; mentally ill inmates have a hard time following prison rules. A Wisconsin study found that three-quarters of the prisoners in one solitary-confinement unit were mentally ill. In Maine, over half of supermax inmates are classified as having a serious mental illness.

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